A Breadwinner's Tale My father was a world-class provider who made sure his family had whatever they needed without having to give a thought to money. In the last year of his life, however, we found out just how much that effort had cost him--and us.
By David Whitford

(FORTUNE Magazine) – My father died on Father's Day. He was 84 years old. He died at home in his green leather recliner with my mother and my sister Debbie at his side. He had just said something funny. Then he gasped lightly as if he were choking and stopped breathing. Debbie is a nurse; she tried to bring him back, and afterward she had regrets about that. Instead of bearing down with both fists on his sternum, she thinks maybe it would have been better to hold him, just hold him, while he slipped away. But my brother Brad says no, and I think he's right. My father was a practical man. He would have appreciated the effort.

Dad's relatively peaceful death was in sharp contrast to the violent emotional storm that swept through our family in the last year of his life. At the center of the storm was a crushing, six-figure debt Dad had built up over decades without telling any of us. Even when he could no longer keep his creditors at bay and his secret was exposed, the mystery of it remained: How could my father, of all people, a prudent, reliable, big-league provider whose only known extravagances were Brooks Brothers suits and Christmas gifts for his wife, who drove every car he ever owned for at least ten years, who had never given anyone in the family cause to doubt his fiscal good sense--how could such a man have secretly amassed a staggering personal debt, half of it on high-interest credit cards?

This past fall I spent hours at my father's desk, in his chair, going through his papers--his bank and brokerage statements, his correspondence, his journal. While I dreaded what I might find, part of me was hoping for a clear-cut explanation, no matter how shocking or painful. A mistress, maybe. A gambling habit. A fatal weakness for penny stocks. Well, I found nothing sordid. The only skeleton in my father's closet was his astonishing debt. I realized then that I was going to have to dig deeper, and not necessarily in his files.

About that time, I phoned Jacob Needleman, a philosophy professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Money and the Meaning of Life. When it comes to managing our financial affairs, Needleman says, we like to think that "we're all pretty competent, we're all doing more or less the right thing. Nonsense! The whole thing is seeping with irrationality and emotion."

Needleman listened patiently to my family's tale of woe. When I finished, he was silent for a moment. "If I could say so," he gently offered, "I think if you took anybody in this world, anybody who reads FORTUNE, and you scratched a little bit under the surface, in eight out of ten you'll find something as startling and troubling and self-contradictory as your father's story."


It was a year ago last fall that Mom started to let on she was worried. Credit card companies were calling at dinnertime, asking for Dad. When he bristled and wouldn't tell her what was going on, she confided in Debbie, who lives nearby, and after that the news spread quickly through the family grapevine.

There had to be an explanation. Dad had recently given up the separate apartment next door that had been his office--an overdue acknowledgement that his retirement career as a freelance consultant was finally winding down. In the midst of setting up a new office in his bedroom, he and my mother had gone to California for three weeks to visit family. There were still piles of paper and unopened boxes lying around. Under the circumstances, anyone might have missed a payment.

Besides, my father was starting to show definite signs of slippage. He'd driven right through a red light while my sister Ann was sitting in the passenger seat (she wouldn't ride with him anymore); and in California, Brad had had to chase down a waiter in a restaurant after watching Dad miscalculate the check by a factor of ten and blithely sign the charge slip. Even so, the idea that he might be in deep financial trouble never crossed my mind.

We all had our issues with Dad. He was a secretive man, emotionally awkward, orderly to a fault, often impatient. Normal family discord unnerved him. But in all the ways expected of white-collar fathers of his generation he was sublimely competent. He carved the meat. He made breakfast on Sunday mornings. He plied us with one-liners and played a mean piano. Above all, he provided for his family.

Dad grew up during the Depression. Fresh out of college in 1936, he was lucky to be offered a slot in an executive training program at a good company, and he took it. He started in the mailroom at $65 a month, saved up for a ring, and a year later married his college sweetheart. All they ever wanted, Mom tells me, was an older house in a pleasant suburb ("not one of those builder's houses"), a yard with some tall trees, three children ("a pair and a spare"), and enough money to send them to college. They figured $5,000 a year would do it.

When the war came, Dad went to officer training school and served 16 months aboard a minesweeper in the South Pacific. Upon returning to civilian life he moved swiftly up the organization--traveling frequently, working on Saturdays, growing with the company, making vice president by 1954. The family turned out to be larger than planned--three kids were born right around the war, then a ten-year gap, then came me and my younger brother, Brad. But the family income was bigger than expected too. The equivalent in 1967 dollars of the $5,000 my parents aspired to in 1935 was about $12,000. By 1967, when I was 10, my father was making three times that, enough to put him well into the top 5% of wage earners.

Then in 1973, at age 58, he jumped to another company. It was a brilliant career move, all the more remarkable for being the only job switch he ever made. It jacked his salary up to $50,000 (the same as $200,000 today) and put him in the corner office for the first time. ("Office is fantastic," he wrote in his diary, "bigger than most living rooms.") He worked until he was 70, only to go immediately into business for himself as a $175-per-hour consultant.

One night, maybe ten years ago, after Dad had retired, he called me into his office, pointed at a blue three-ring binder on the bottom bookshelf, and invited me to look through it. It was his financial record book. He had never told me how much he was making (I learned those details after he died) or how much he was worth. I had no idea how he had managed the big stone house with the tennis court, the European vacations, the club memberships, or the astonishing trick of putting five children through college (and four of them through graduate school). He sent me off to my Ivy League college with two new Brooks Brothers sport coats (I think I wore one of them, just once), an American Express card ("Just in case," he told me; I only ever used it on my birthday to take my girlfriend out to dinner), and a monthly allowance. Dad's money was almost like tap water to me: never to be wasted but always available.

It was an awkward moment, holding that book of secrets in my hands. I felt as if I were invading his privacy. I remember glancing at the brokerage statement and seeing that he had about $150,000 in a joint account with my mother, spread among a handful of conservative investments; an $80,000 IRA from which he was taking mandatory disbursements; and a lot of insurance policies. The contents of that binder confirmed the vague sense I'd always had that my father knew exactly what he was doing.

But now it was ten years later, and I was beginning to wonder whether I had missed something. The calls from collection agencies weren't letting up. There was an embarrassing incident at the local pharmacy involving a credit card that wouldn't go through. Debbie reported that the mess in his new office was overwhelming. Lots of mail from banks; lots of unopened bills. She had questioned him, gently. His response stopped her cold: "That falls into the category of none of your business!"

Thanksgiving was coming. My family and I were planning to spend the long weekend with my parents. While I was there, Debbie and I agreed, we'd have a talk with Dad.


Dad got dunned in the middle of dinner my first night in town. He mumbled something into the receiver about this not being a good time. Then he wrote down an 800 number and hung up and announced to the room, absurdly, that it was a credit card solicitation. I didn't press him.

Even after that disquieting episode, the longer I was in my father's house, the less thrilled I was with the prospect of confronting him. No matter that we were all grown; we were still my father's children. What right did we have to demand an accounting of his finances? It felt like an unnatural act. I was hoping (absurdly, I know) that it might not be necessary. My wife finally straightened me out. "You have to talk to him," she said on the day before we were planning to go home. "Your mother needs you."

So we talked, my mother, my father, my sister, and I, sitting around the dining room table. It did not go well. Dad was defensive. He insisted that the dunning calls were nothing to worry about. He blamed any delinquencies on the office move and the trip to California. He said he would take care of everything. And he flatly refused all help. We were stumped, Debbie and I, so we just kept asking the same questions, over and over. He kept changing the subject. At one point he put his hands over his ears and made a humming noise. But in the end he made us a conditional promise: Leave me alone, let me handle this, and I'll report back in two weeks.

Exactly two weeks later, in the evening, I took the portable phone outdoors (I was too nervous to sit down inside) and called my parents. They both got on the line. Dad was ready, and he didn't waste time. He said he owed a total of $24,000. I was stunned, but I was also relieved. So there really is a problem. It's serious. We were right to force the issue. I asked him, "What are you going to do?" Borrow against my life insurance policies, he said. He'd already filled out the forms. He'd have the money in a couple of weeks. Problem solved.

I wasn't so sure. Neither were my brothers and sisters, but I didn't know what else we could do. Mom seemed satisfied. I was still reeling from the confrontation two weeks ago. If we asked him for more information and he refused, then what? Go through his files? Against his will? Never in a million years.


I was on the phone all the time now with my siblings. The more we talked, the less satisfied we were with the way things stood. We still had no documentation. All Dad could tell us about how he had managed to accumulate so much debt was, "I don't know." Odd as it may seem, I kept thinking, What would Dad do if he were in my shoes? I felt sure he would demand a fuller explanation.

So it was that a few days after Christmas, Brad met with Dad alone in his office. It was a planned meeting. Dad had prepared an agenda. This was to be the moment of voluntary full disclosure, and Brad went in there expecting to see credit card bills and canceled checks. Instead he got handed a sheet of paper from Dad's printer. In one column, a short list of credit cards and balances due; in another, available insurance monies. The net was a perfect zero. "I said, 'Dad, you have to show me how you arrived at this number,' " Brad recalls. "He got very upset. He said, 'I can't.' I said, 'Well, you need to show me tomorrow.' "

The next day there was no agenda. Just Dad sitting sullen and stubborn in his big padded office chair (the one we'd all chipped in for on his birthday) and Brad standing over him. "He was starting to swear," Brad says. "He said, 'It's none of your goddamn business!' I started noticing these piles of unfiled stuff. I reached in and grabbed a credit card statement. I said, 'Did you count this?' He seemed confused. He said, 'No.' Then I saw another bill, for around $24,000. He had delineated that much in his list the day before. I said, 'What about this?' He said, 'No, I haven't.' "

Water was rushing through the dam now. Suddenly, as if some inner switch had been thrown, Dad stopped resisting. "He let it happen," Brad says. Debbie came by to help wade through the stacks of bills. They kept a running tally on a yellow legal pad. After a break for dinner, Dad bowed out completely and headed for the TV room. Brad and Debbie worked late into the night.

The truth was breathtaking. Dad had 19 active credit cards and credit lines on which he owed about $60,000. What's more, he'd been writing checks for years against a zero cash balance in his brokerage account, building a substantial margin debit and steadily eating away at his nest egg. Bottom line: My father was in the hole for $128,000.


I was furious with him. All those months refusing to admit to anything; not only that, but making us feel like heels for backing him into a corner and demanding answers. And now that we finally had the facts, he wouldn't accept responsibility. He went from defiant to helpless overnight, but the common denominator was denial. I wanted to shake him.

Partly it was the fiscal lunacy that was so galling--borrowing tens of thousands of dollars at 20% interest and letting it ride for years. Just thinking about all that money wasted on interest payments made me ill. But more than that, it was as if I'd suddenly discovered my father down in the basement, swinging a sledgehammer, destroying a corner of the family foundation. Try to understand: One day, everything's normal. Mom and Dad are settled comfortably in their big apartment, hosting family gatherings, traveling back and forth between the coasts, living life like an affluent corporate couple in their 60s instead of a retired couple in their 80s. And now all of a sudden I'm lying awake at night wondering, What if the whole thing collapses? What if they're really broke? What if I have to come up with money to help support them? What if I have to take them in? I felt duped by my father, lied to, jerked around. I wanted a better explanation. I wanted an apology.

One day I finally lost it. I had taken two days off from work, flown into town on an expensive ticket in the dead of winter, met with a lawyer who charged $800 to grant me and my older brother, Rob, power of attorney over Dad's affairs (the first step in the big job of cleaning up his mess), watched my mother slip and fall on wet snow outside the lawyer's office (at least she wasn't hurt), forced myself to ask Dad, point-blank, if he had been supporting a mistress all these years (he scoffed; why would I even ask that?), and now, finally, I was on my way out the door, was brushing my lips against Dad's scratchy cheek, when he whispers in my ear, "I hope this isn't interfering with your job." It came out of nowhere, and it sounded phony. I snapped my head back. "Of course it is!" I yelled at him. "My job! My family! My sleep! My life!"

He was already sick by then, so weak that he couldn't even stand up to say goodbye. It wasn't a fair fight. But I kept going. The anger spilled out of me, and I didn't try to stop it. I can't even say that I felt guilty afterward.

My little blowup was not unique. Sooner or later, everybody in the family got into it with Dad. And Dad got into it with everybody. I said some things I wish I hadn't, but then again, I heard some things I never thought I'd hear from my own father's lips.

Always beneath the anger was a faint voice whispering, Maybe he's not to blame. He was taking lots of pain medications; maybe they were making him loopy. Some of us had long thought that he probably drank too much; maybe it was alcoholism. Or maybe an undiagnosed case of Alzheimer's. I wanted to believe he was a victim, but the fact is, he had been carrying obscene balances for years, long before his competence became an issue.

He did so, of course, with the full complicity of his lenders. Perhaps in a less cynical credit system--one not so finely tuned to drive just the optimal number of borrowers over the edge--he would have been cut off before he crashed. But the irony is, even as his debt was skidding out of control, Dad would have appeared on the banks' credit-screening computers as the ideal customer. He borrowed to the max, never paid down the balance, and faithfully made the minimum payment (even when he had to write checks against his brokerage account's nonexistent cash balance to do so). In the final year, when the debt had grown crazy and he began to miss payments, lenders continued to fill his mailbox with shiny new cards, generous offers to increase his borrowing power, even blank checks.

In the end, though, Dad was the one responsible for what he did. As recently as 1990, when his debt was just $25,000, he could have wiped the slate clean after he and my mother netted $200,000 on the sale of their house. But for reasons I will never understand, he chose not to. Did he think he was still in control? That given just a little more time--and maybe a few choice consulting assignments--he could gradually pay down the debt and leave his savings intact? Was he thinking he didn't have much longer to live and that his life insurance would wipe out the debt? Or was it simply that he was in a vacuum, making decisions by himself, with no one to question his choices? Just as I never got the apology I wanted, I never got the explanation either.

It's clear to me now that our family's standard of living, going back years, was partly a lie. Dad made it look easy, but beneath the surface he was paddling like a maniac to keep his head above water. His journals are filled with expressions of a fiscal anxiety he never shared with anyone: The new roof that will cost $3,900 ("Ye Gawds!"), the painters' bill for $10,000 ("a real shocker"), the lousy flat tire that set him back $87 ("Jesus Christ"), plus scores of tiny instances in which he opened his wallet to his grown children, willingly but not without effort. "Arrived in Providence about 6 P.M.," he wrote on Jan. 5, 1980. "Dinner with Dave. I love that boy. He's broke--gave him $50 and will have to pay his rent next month, and probably all quarter!"

After 1990 he never had a prayer of paying down his credit card balance. There was simply no extra room in his budget--none. His fixed expenses fell into three categories: rent on two apartments; a monthly allotment for groceries and other household bills; and a check to my mother on the first of every month to cover her personal expenses. Together they equaled his after-tax income. Everything else was deficit spending--plane tickets, dinners out, insurance premiums, and servicing that angry debt on which interest alone easily exceeded $1,000 a month. The debt had nowhere to go but up.

We were all oblivious. I think about the family dinners out that automatically went on Dad's credit card; the new computer I encouraged him to buy (why shouldn't he have the best?); and what's really frightening, how close I came to asking him for a house loan a few years ago. But who knew? Not my mother, that's for sure. "Isn't it lovely?" she admits having thought to herself on more than one occasion after Dad retired. "We've reached the point where I can buy whatever I want, whatever I need, without even thinking about it."

I'm sure that's exactly what Dad wanted her to believe. He wanted his kids to believe it too. Anything we want. Anything we need. Without even thinking about it.

Why did he set such an unaffordable standard for himself? I think part of it--and it took me a long time to figure this one out--was Dad's optimism. He was a child of the Depression, that's true, but what formed him was the post-World War II prosperity. He rode that economic train to the top of his profession, with all that implies: a salary that kept going up, a family that kept getting bigger, prospects that kept getting brighter. Lately I've been remembering Dad's standard advice on buying a house: "Borrow as much as you can for as long as you can." It's the advice of a man who has learned that it's just in the nature of economic problems to work themselves out.

The other part of it, I think, is that he regarded the breadwinner's role as an absolute imperative, a defining duty. If he could not provide magnificently, without any visible strain, he had failed. Of course, such things are never just about the money, as Needleman says, and what breaks my heart is that I think Dad was afraid that if we ever stopped believing in that fantasy, we might not love or respect him anymore. And if I'm right--even just a little bit right about that--then I hardly wonder that he went so far into debt, that he never dared tell anyone about it, or that he fought so hard in the end to protect his awful secret.

He had a Formica desktop in his office and he used to write all over it. In pencil, mostly, in that shaky, cramped hand of his. Phone numbers, passwords, odd dollar amounts. And this, which I found two days after he died: "Help me. I'm drowning."

Dad, we had no idea. I wish you'd told us.


When friends offered their condolences, I told them it could have been much worse. Dad never had to live in a nursing home. He didn't have to die in an intensive-care unit. Four months before he died, he had a heart attack, from which he never fully recovered. In retrospect, the heart attack was a blessing. It solved the driving problem (out of the question) and put the debt in perspective. After he came home from the hospital, we just wanted to spend time with him while we still could. We got off his back. I know that he perceived it as a blessing too. "Everyone should have a heart attack and survive," he told Ann two weeks before he died, "because they'll learn how much their family loves them."

Mom used what insurance money remained to help pay off the margin loans. As for the credit card debt, the balance died with Dad, unpaid and uncollectable. Even credit card issuers shrink from collecting a dead man's debts from his 84-year-old widow.

I know that's not how Dad would have wanted it to end. Even when it was costing him well over $1,000 a month just to keep up with the minimum payments, he always paid on time. He was proud of that. "I have an unblemished credit record," he wrote in a 1993 letter to a physician who had misplaced his check, "and I do not appreciate what I have had to go through since you referred this matter to your collection agency." Years later, when the debt finally crushed him and some of the experts we talked to raised the bankruptcy option, Dad recoiled. He wouldn't even discuss it.

He needn't feel ashamed, though. Mom's going to be fine. She gets 75% of his pension, plus Social Security, plus the IRA--enough to guarantee a comfortable income for the rest of her life. It looks as if she can keep the apartment after all. She doesn't owe anybody anything. And she'll never be a burden on her children. If the final test of the sole provider is how well his dependents manage after he's gone, then Dad passes, absolutely.